A letter from St Patrick

Some of you might remember that on this day two years ago I opened my inbox to discover an email with a strange address: patrick@heaven.paradise

Some sort of prank, I thought – one of my friends messing with me on St Patrick’s Day. Still, always insufferably curious, I decided to open it, and it seemed authentic. I was astounded – St Patrick had taken the time to write to me for his feast day. St Patrick had written to little old me. So, naturally, I was thrilled to discover another email from St Patrick sitting in my inbox this morning. Considering that I hadn’t any homily prepared for today and that the bishop was coming, I thought I’d read it out for you.

It starts…

Dear Fr Gerard

Just a few lines to say hello on my feast day and praise you for the wonderful job you’re doing in Mt St Alphonsus. Greetings too to your confreres who are a model Christian community, and a credit to the diocese and the church. I must apologise for neglecting to write to you last year, but old age is making me increasingly forgetful.

As I told you before, I’ve always had great time for the Redemptorists, and St Alphonsus is a pal of mine. I like to hang out with the more scholarly saints like him because it makes me look more important. Still, the real reason I’m drawn to Alphonsus is that he founded the Redemptorists especially to minister to the poor goat and sheep herds on the mountains around Amalfi in Italy, and of course, I used to be a sheep herd myself and know what a tough life it is. So I admire his founding vision and hope his successors remain faithful to it today.

I’ve been around for a lot of St Patrick days, but this one is the most challenging since Famine times. Some saints up here accuse me of having a swelled head, even of being conceited, but you can get accustomed to your feast being one of the most popular throughout the whole world, even by people who can’t find Ireland on a map. You can get used to the big parades and green rivers and exuberant parties, and shamrock on people’s breasts, and rousing hymns sung in packed churches. It makes a lot of other saints very jealous. They hate that my feast is the most popular anywhere on earth. After all the hullabaloo about Brexit, St George was hoping he’d get a boost, but no sign of that yet. And, of course, Boris is a Russian saint.

So you can imagine how painful it is for me this year to see the celebration of my feast cancelled throughout the world, to have no parades or big parties, to have everything locked down. That’s bad enough, but to have churches closed in so many countries is especially difficult to accept. Today is a religious feast, first and foremost, and the fact that people can’t come together to celebrate the faith that they share, that has been handed down from generation to generation, is a big blow to me. It brings my mind back to the old penal days, when people gathered surreptitiously around Mass rocks.

So, naturally enough, I’m feeling grumpy this year. St Bridget did her best to cheer me up last night with a season ticket for Anfield. She knows that, like yourself, I’m a great Liverpool fan, but when I look at the impact of the Coronavirus and the state of the church and the world right now, it’s hard to think of football. (Speaking of sport, I can assure you that the Limerick hurlers will reclaim the Liam McCarthy cup this year. I always support the boys in green.)

Anyway, at breakfast this morning, St Bridget and St Columbanus both agreed with me that this crisis presents a real opportunity as well as a challenge.

It reminds us that the church is not a building, but is all of us, that Christ isn’t only in the tabernacle but in the midst of us. That the church is made up of families, little communities of faith, what Vatican II calls the domestic church. Each family watching and participating on the webcam is the domestic church, the church at its most basic and fundamental level.

That fact that we can’t receive the Eucharist is a reminder of how precious the Eucharist is, that it’s something we should never take for granted. Being deprived of it hopefully deepens our desire for it.

It’s also a glimpse of what the Christian community would be like without priests, a situation that already exists in some parts of the world. It reminds us of the need for reform in the church so that the Eucharist can be celebrated.

This Coronavirus reminds us, too, of our fragility and interconnectedness. We never know what’s around the corner; we need each other. It reminds us of the importance of family, of community, of solidarity. It’s great to see evidence of that around the country right now. Covid-19 respects no borders – but love recognises no borders either, and the way we show we are Christians is by our love. I hope this crisis draws peoples and nations closer together rather than tempting them to put up barriers and walls.

There are no parades today, which is a bummer. I love watching those that take place around the country – the colour and excitement and fun, the superabundance of green, people of all ages together – but we can still celebrate today. We Irish are good at enjoying ourselves. We can make today like a mini Christmas Day, a family event, a spiritual celebration. There are no trees and no gifts under them, but love is the gift we can share, our love and faith passed on through the centuries. And we can pray for each other and for care providers who are working so hard to protect us all.

So, Fr Gerard, that’s my wish for you and for the people of Ireland today. Tough times, yes, challenging times, definitely, but at least you have the comfort of knowing that after 30 long years, Liverpool FC will win the Premier League this year and in record fashion too. Sometimes the good guys do win in the end.

Slan anois and best wishes from all of us up here.

Your friend in Christ,

Patrick

PS. I’m sorry if this email reads like a bit of a lecture, but I’m rather worked up today. I know you’ll understand.

P.

Being peaceful in a hate-filled world – Homily for the 7th Sunday of the Year

Perfection is difficult.

Every Friday, the New York Times has a quiz of the week. It’s usually comprised of ten multiple-choice questions about stories that appeared in the paper over the previous seven days. After you finish the test, it tells you what percentage of people got each question right, so that you can compare yourself to others and see how well you performed. I do it every week. Last week I got one answer wrong, which seems good except that 13 per cent of participants got every answer right. They were perfect. I was not.

Perfection is difficult. Not even LFC is perfect this season. Our stats might be better than any other team in the history of Europe’s top five divisions, but we dropped two points in our opening 26 games. Staggering stats, yes, but not perfect.

Today’s Gospel is from the Sermon on the Mount – the passage in Matthew where Jesus spells out the moral code that must guide his followers. There’s a big difference between Jesus’s teaching and the old Jewish law. Jesus takes the old law to the next level. He orientates the focus from head to heart, from convention to conviction, from the letter of the law to the intention behind it.

Jewish law was big into external observance. Keep the law, and you were all right. Stick to everything it prescribed, and you couldn’t go wrong. It didn’t matter very much what kind of person you were on the inside – in the heart – so long as you followed the law line by line.

Jesus sees it differently. It’s not just about keeping the letter of the law. It’s about the kind of person you are, how you relate to others, what motivates you. 

We see that contrast played out in today’s Gospel. Jesus says: “You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked person no resistance…”

“You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemy…”

You see the pattern: “You have learnt how it was said…. But I say this to you…” The contrast is stark. The old way of living is no longer good enough. We must now live according to the far more challenging new law of Jesus. It’s a call to be our best selves, to be no less than perfect.

This new law of Jesus has vast implications for how we treat each other. Perfection is difficult. We are far from perfect. Think of the tragic story of Caroline Flack, who died last Sunday. The tabloid press harassed her, internet trolls tormented her, reporters hounded her, media circulated all kinds of nasty rumours impugning her. They were having a field day, as they have whenever there’s a juicy story to exploit. Cast into a pit of despair, Caroline Flack saw no way out. They destroyed her.

Think of how polarised and bitter politics and public debate have become at home and abroad – the anger, venom, hatred, sneering contempt that’s directed at individuals and groups. Social media – Twitter, Facebook, messaging apps – are particularly vile and vicious, and even good people get sucked into that world of cruelty and intolerance. It’s a particularly discomfiting environment if you are a woman in the public eye, or if you are gay or trans, or an immigrant. An African footballer walked off a pitch in Portugal last week after suffering disgusting racial abuse throughout a match. He was reduced to tears.

On Wednesday, in Germany, a right-wing nationalist, fuelled by online racist ideology, shot dead nine members of the Kurdish community. An increasing number of children are using racist and sexist language to taunt others in school – in America, much of it because they feel they’ve got permission right from the top.

Now listen to the law of Jesus again: love your enemies; show mercy; extend the hand of friendship; be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. A message of inclusion, equality and respect our hierarchical, patriarchal church would do well to take on board also.

Be perfect, Jesus instructs us, but perfection is difficult, and we are far from it.

There’s a line in today’s second reading that gets to the heart of why we must love and respect and forgive and seek perfection. St Paul reminds the people of Corinth that they are God’s temple. The Jewish people believed that God dwelt in the great temple in Jerusalem. The temple was where you found God; the temple was God’s earthly dwelling place.

But St Paul reminds us that God lives in each of us, that God’s Holy Spirit dwells in each of us, that the Spirit has made her home in us. Each of us is God’s temple – no matter our background, or sexuality, or gender, or ethnicity, or physical appearance, or academic qualifications, or career accomplishments, or sporting prowess, or personal history, or class or rank  – and so each of us is unique, precious, priceless, lovable, invaluable, irreplaceable.

Each of us is a temple of God’s Holy Spirit, and this knowledge must shape how we treat every other person, online and offline, in person and in absentia.

Living the Sermon on the Mount is living the law of love. It is seeing everyone – everyone – as God’s holy temple. It is to seek perfection, not only in the NYT quiz every week but in every sphere, in everything I do. What a different world we would have, and what different debates we would conduct, and how gentle and just society would be, if we were able to live like that.

Perfection is difficult; be perfect.

Trump, evangelicals and the death of democracy

Looking at what is happening in Washington these days, it appears as if the very fabric of US democracy is breaking down. The system of checks and balances the Founding Fathers carefully put in place is creaking badly and urgently needs an overhaul.
It is damaging to democracy that scantily populated states like Vermont and Wyoming should have the same power in the US senate as California and Texas. It is damaging to democracy to have an electoral system in place that gives the highest office in the land to someone who fails to win a majority of the votes. Democracy is about honouring the will of the people – something the electoral college does not. It is damaging to democracy when the three branches of government fail to hold one other in check. When the Senate fails to hold the Executive to account, as is now happening, then the constitution is being flouted, and government is breaking down.
America is in a mess, a country deeply divided. Unscrupulous players are manipulating social media to exacerbate these divisions. The occupant of the White House has no respect for truth or integrity. The party of which he is a member has wilfully colluded in his egregious machinations so that it can stuff the federal courts with right-wing judges who will remain in office for a generation. There is every possibility that should he lose the election in November, neither he nor his supporters will accept the result, leading to an even bigger constitutional crisis. Putin, and every enemy of democracy, is thrilled by what is happening.
The fact that so many Christians have publicly aligned themselves with this president is a scandal. The occupant of the Oval Office has ably demonstrated that he is a naked opportunist with no real commitment to the pro-life cause, as his rhetoric and policies show. He may claim to be anti-abortion, but he is not pro-life. Its identification with this man has irrevocably tarnished Christianity in the US. The Christian should be identified by her concern for the poor, by her support for human and civil rights, by her determination to build bridges and promote reconciliation as well as by her opposition to the death penalty and easy access to guns. If right-wing evangelical Christianity and its ‘prosperity gospel’ is forever tarnished through its association with this president, at least that is one good thing he will have done.

Benedict needs to silence himself

Reports from Rome suggest that retired Pope Benedict XVI is co-authoring a book defending mandatory celibacy. According to the National Catholic Reporter, the ex-pontiff says he could not remain silent on the issue even as Pope Francis is considering the possibility of allowing older, married men to be ordained as priests in the Amazon region. At the close of the synod on the Amazon in October 2019 the members recommended by a vote of 128-41 that Francis allow for bishops in the region to ordain married deacons as priests, should circumstances so merit. The book is co-written with Cardinal Robert Sarah, the head of the Vatican’s liturgy office, and is expected to be published this week.
Francis is reported to be working on an apostolic exhortation in which he is expected to respond to the synod’s request to permit the ordination of married priests.
This intervention by the retired pope on an issue currently being considered by the reigning pope is both dangerous and unprecedented.
Pope Benedict aptly nobly when he resigned from the papacy. It was a courageous move, a breaking with tradition, a radical letting go. People assumed that after he stepped down, he would go quietly into retirement, careful not to step on his successor’s toes, knowing there can ever only be one pope at a time.
Benedict should have left the city of Rome and withdrawn to a monastery or retirement home in his native Germany. He should not have remained in the Vatican.
He should have cast off the papal white and worn the robes of a cardinal or simple priest.
He should have dropped the word pope from his title and used a new title, such as emeritus bishop of Rome, to indicate his altered status and so that people would not think there are two popes, two voices of authority in the church.
He should have stated his intention to remain neutral on issues affecting the church, keeping a stoic silence above the fray. Knowing he could no longer do the job himself, he should have allowed his successor the freedom to do the job, without public comment or interference.
He should have known that Francis’s enemies would use him as a weapon, a figure to rally round, in their battle to prevent any real change in the church.
Benedict acted nobly in deciding to retire. The decisions he has made subsequently have not only been unfortunate but dangerous. By speaking out publicly on such a divisive and sensitive topic as mandatory celibacy, he has placed Pope Francis in an awkward position. Benedict is encouraging dissent. He is widening the divisions in the church. He is increasing the possibility of schism.
In the past, those who dared criticise Benedict or his predecessor were summarily dealt with, told to desist, effectively silenced. Some are still being punished. Many of those who tolerated no criticism of the pope or the institutional church when John Paul II and Benedict were in office, now have no problem in openly attacking Pope Francis.
Of course, mandatory celibacy is a core pillar of clericalism. It’s no surprise that Benedict wants to maintain it. It is most disappointing that he would air his views publicly, knowing the damage it would do to Francis and the church.

Sadness and the return of the black dog

Wine makes me melancholic, but I haven’t needed alcohol to feel melancholic these days. The black dog has been nibbling at my feet all week, and the only escape is the sanctuary of sleep. Thankfully, I have had only the occasional confrontation with the black dog in the last year or so, but he has pinned me against the wall right now.
While he can appear without warning, several factors facilitate his appearance. When they coalesce, I am trapped. For how long I never know. Fortunately, it is usually a relatively quick visit, and I can scramble towards the light again.
The first Christmas without my parents left me feeling orphaned. Being a bachelor with no family of my own, my Christmas always revolved around my parents – enjoying their cosy fireside presence, being entertained by my father’s annual indictment of the appalling rubbish on the telly, taking them on mandatory visits around the family circle, the long, lazy, chocolate-fuelled days lapping up their unconditional love.
Many times this lonely festive season, I have heard my mother’s voice call out in my dreams, pictured her sitting across from me at mealtimes policing my use of the salt cellar. I have smiled at the memory of my father surreptitiously slipping sugar in his tea when her back was turned.
In the four Christmases since my father’s passing, the time spent with my mother became even more significant. She missed him as only a true lover can, her tender heartbroken, and she missed her sisters who had always come home for Christmas but were now going home to God. Though children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren surrounded her, she missed the company and companionship and connection that her life partner had brought her and I missed it too. My first Christmas without both of them was as bad as I had feared.
The dawn of a new decade inevitably induces nostalgia. I have been thinking of the fine Redemptorists who died in the last ten years and of those who have left. When I joined four decades ago, I saw life and vibrancy and young seminarians with long hair strumming on guitars. I smelled excitement and possibility. I saw my future mapped out; I’d be one of a merry band of brothers crisscrossing the country filling churches with good news.
Now I see change and decay and good men in obvious physical decline, and the black dog sneering at me about a futureless future and a life misled. I look at a clerical church that is 200 years behind the times and wonder if the changes that are needed will ever come about. I despair that the entrenched culture of clericalism and careerism that facilitated the abuse of the most vulnerable and the misuse of power and money can ever be destroyed.
I look at flames devouring Australia and waters inundating Venice and wonder whether puny politicians and myopic vested interests will ever begin to take climate catastrophe seriously. I scan social media and online comments pages and weep at the hatred and racism and sexism and homophobia and abuse that little people hurl at others and how, for all our technical and scientific progress, tribalism and fear and misogyny and insecurity continue to drive wedges between individuals and peoples and nations.
I preach all the time about the importance of practising present moment awareness, of living each day in the now, of appreciating every moment. But when my chronic pain spikes and the black dog appears, I want to flee from the present moment; I withdraw to my room. I stop reading. Even my wit dries up. I just want to disappear. I seek solace in slumber.
As long as the black dog lingers, each day is a going through the motions. I fulfil my duties as well as I can; I continue to preach to the best of my ability; I pray and place my melancholia before the God of compassion and love, and I know that any day now the black dog will scuttle away defeated and I’ll be back to myself, and those living with me will be obliged to endure my remarkable wit once again.

A decade of highs and very lows

I’m not sorry to see the back of the teens. The last decade has been the most difficult of my life, and while it hasn’t been all bleak, I have little reason to look back on these years with any fondness.
It was a decade of losses. I lost my parents and many other close loved ones. This was the first Christmas without my mother, whom I miss beyond words.
I lost my health and have had to live with daily chronic pain since the summer of 2014. During the first couple of years, the pain was so intense and my self-pity was so all-consuming that I did not want to go on living.
I lost my innocent belief in the power of medicine and medics to alleviate pain and not merely to treat a patient as just another client to cross off their list as soon as convenient.
I lost my job in Redemptorist Communications that gave me joy, routine and a sense of purpose.
I lost my reputation as a responsible, ‘reliable’ priest, having been officially sanctioned by the Vatican.
I lost my home in Dublin and my parish chaplaincy in Rathgar where I felt stimulated as priest and pastor.
I lost any lingering delusion of being a young man. I had to accept the reality of rapidly advancing middle age and that my best years, and any possibilities of new beginnings, were now behind me.
I lost hope for the future of the Redemptorists (and of religious life as we knew it) in Ireland and the Western world. I am one of the last generation of Irish religious.
As fascism, narrow nationalism and right-wing populism gained momentum across the world, I lost hope that people, brought together through the potentially unifying power of social media, would focus on what unites rather than divides.
I lost the naive assumption that social media would bring people together and be a force for good rather than become an easily manipulated tool that undermines democracy, spreads fake news, and feeds people’s worst instincts.
From being a life-long lover of US politics and the US presidency, I lost respect for the office of president and for the party of Lincoln, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower which allowed itself to become the willing poodle of an insane, dangerous demagogue.
The tragedy of Brexit damaged the affection I had built up for Britain following the Good Friday Agreement and the queen’s successful visit to Ireland in 2011. Now we see the worst of England, a country pining for a glorious past it will never recover. It’s hard to forgive the injury the Brexiteers are doing to the cause of harmony in Europe and especially to the welfare of the people of the island of Ireland.
The last decade brought many positives too.
I have gained four family members, grandnephews and grandnieces, that are a source of wonder and joy.
I found a warm welcome and extraordinary support from the Redemptorist community in Limerick, which helped me through my early days of physical pain and wallowing self-pity. It reminded me of the value of religious life.
I have discovered that my preaching has improved with age and enjoy the task of putting a challenging and engaging homily together.
I have – I think – become more tolerant and pleasant to live with. Suffering has made me more human and improved my sense of humour.
Without deadlines to meet, I have read far more and more widely than in the past and would like to think I am more educated now.
As I have aged, I have become more liberal/progressive/lefty in my views. The downside is that I am also more intolerant of those with whom I disagree.
My reading has helped me to see the world from a feminist perspective and to be even more ashamed of my church’s failure to include women as equals.
The election of Pope Francis filled me with hope, to which I continue to cling. He is trying to effect real change in the face of stiff opposition from powerful forces in the curia and in the church who seek to stifle him at every turn.
I am delighted that the 2010s has been a good decade for the LGBTI community in Ireland and many other countries with the introduction of marriage equality and other rights. However, much remains to be done, especially concerning protecting those who are transgender.
The last decade has been good too from a sporting point of view. Limerick won the All Ireland hurling title in 2018. Having attended five finals which they lost, I thought I would never see the day when the McCarthy Cup would come back to Limerick. Their unexpected triumph filled me with happiness.
The same goes for Liverpool FC. Under the wonderful Jurgen Klopp, the team is playing with a style and panache I never dreamed possible ten years ago. When they win the Premiership in May, most of my dreams will have been completed.

The cost of discipleship (Homily for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

It’s always smart to plan ahead. If you’re doing an exam, and have five questions to answer in two hours, it’s essential to calculate how long to spend on each question. Otherwise, you may run out of time. If you’re going somewhere by car, make sure you have enough petrol, especially if you’re travelling in the countryside late at night.

History overflows with examples of epic miscalculation. Napoleon and Hitler both invaded Russia without taking the hostile winter weather into account. David Cameron promised a referendum on the European Union thinking he’d never have to hold one. Theresa May called a general election certain she’d win handily. The Americans invaded Afghanistan and Iraq with no plan what to do once the regimes were overthrown. Now, millions of suffering people are paying a terrible price. Last week, Boris Johnson threatened his MPs with deselection if they failed to back his Brexit plan. Now he – and we – are facing a deep dystopian crisis. Think of the ghost housing estates of a decade ago, a symbol of reckless spending and absent prudence that ended up crushing so many ordinary people.

Good planning is essential if we don’t want to miscalculate and mess up. In setting out to do something, it’s critical to weigh up the options and potential outcomes, in order to achieve success.

Good planning is what Jesus advocates in today’s Gospel. He says if we want to follow him, we need to be absolutely clear what we are getting ourselves into. We need to know exactly what it means. We need to calculate the cost because it won’t be easy. If you become a follower of mine, he says, it will involve making tough decisions, hard choices. It will mean taking up your cross every day. It may mean laying down your life.

Jesus uses an extreme example to illustrate his point. Choosing to follow him, he says, means being willing to put him before everyone else, even our own family. It means putting him first in everything, whatever the consequences. Like someone building a tower or a king going into battle, we need to know what we are getting ourselves into; we must make sure we are ready and prepared; we must approach it with eyes wide open.

Last Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. It’s tempting to think of the German people as fully supporting Hitler. But many Germans and Austrians did not. Many opposed him because they knew that Nazism was the opposite of Christianity. People like the great Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knew that Nazim was sinful, grotesque, abhorrent.

One such person was a young Austrian farmer called Franz Jagerstatter. A committed Catholic, Franz was married to Franziska, and had three young daughters. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Franz was enlisted to serve in Hitler’s army. He refused to serve. He knew the war was unjust, that Hitler’s campaign was evil. As a Christian, he could have no part in it.

It was a brave stand to take because the price to pay was stark: the punishment for refusing to wear the Nazi uniform was death. His neighbours and local community thought Franz was crazy, and they tried to get him to change his mind. Even the local bishop pleaded with him, telling him it was his duty to his family and to the nation to be a good soldier.

Franz was taken to the local prison and from there to Berlin to be tried before the Supreme Military Court. Even at that late stage efforts were made to find a solution, but to no avail. On August 9, 1943, Franz Jagerstatter was beheaded in Brandenburg Prison. He had been given just 20 minutes to say goodbye to Franziska. He was 36 years old.

Fast forward to October 2007, and Franz’s beatification in a cathedral in Austria. There at the Mass was his 94-year-old widow Franziska. She had lived to see her husband, who had been excoriated and ignored for so long, finally recognised by the church for his heroic virtue, just one step away from sainthood.

Franz Jagerstatter knew what was going to happen to him and his family for defying Hitler, but he did it anyway. He calculated the cost and was ready to pay the price. He was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the Gospel. His family were willing to stand with him. If I had been in his place, could I have done that? Could you?

Next Thursday it will be exactly 40 years since I joined the Redemptorists. I was 17 years old, just finished the Leaving Cert, pimple-faced and full of zeal. The religious life was what I wanted. I thought I had it all worked out, certain I knew what I was getting into. Nine years of study, profession, ordination, then parish missions. A cloudless horizon ahead. But clouds drifted in, often obscuring the horizon. Scandals, clericalism, loneliness, celibacy, friends leaving, vocations falling, church attendance plummeting, the Vatican censoring what I said – so many crises, obstacles. Like a Sat Nav after going off-route, I had to recalculate, reimagine, recommit. Entering religious life seemed much easier in 1979 than today. Now there is a deeper awareness of the cost, of the price.

As there is for all of us gathered here. In Ireland today, to be a Christian doesn’t mean literally risking your life, but putting Jesus first is still a risk, because it means going against the grain. It means believing and acting in ways that the cool people think are foolish.

Today’s Gospel asks us to think about our response to our baptismal calling; whether we are totally committed. Do you stick your neck out for the Gospel? Are you all-in? Do you know the potential consequences? Have you calculated the cost?